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White Wine for Cooking

By Cook's Illustrated Published November 2005

Do distinctive flavor profiles come through once the wine is cooked down?

When a recipe calls for "dry white wine," it's tempting to grab whatever open bottle is in the fridge, regardless of grape varietal. Are we doing our dishes a disservice? Sure, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio may taste different straight from the glass, but how much do those distinctive flavor profiles really come through once the wines get cooked down with other ingredients?

To find out, we tried four different varietals and a supermarket "cooking wine" in five recipes: braised fennel, risotto, a basic pan sauce, a beurre blanc, and chicken chasseur. In our tests, only Sauvignon Blanc consistently boiled down to a "clean" yet sufficiently acidic flavor—one that played nicely with the rest of the ingredients. Differences between the wines were most dramatic in gently flavored dishes, such as the risotto and beurre blanc. In contrast, all five wines produced similar (and fine) results when used in chicken chasseur, no doubt because of all the other strong flavors in this dish.

But what's a cook without leftover Sauvignon Blanc to do? Is there a more convenient option than opening a fresh bottle? To find out, we ran the same cooking tests with sherry and vermouth, wines fortified with alcohol to increase their shelf life. Sherry was too distinct and didn't fare well in these tests, but vermouth was surprisingly good. In fact, its clean, bright flavor bested all but one of the drinking wines. And at $5 a bottle (for Gallo, our top-rated brand of vermouth), you can't argue with the price.

Highly Recommended

OUR FAVORITE

Sauvignon Blanc Crisp, clean, and bright, this wine was strong enough to share the spotlight with other ingredients but refused to steal the show.

MORE THAN MARTINIS

Dry Vermouth A pleasing sweet/tart balance made this fortified wine a close second. And, after being opened, it can sit on the shelf for months.

Recommended with Reservations

INTO THE WOODS

Chardonnay Most inexpensive Chardonnays are simply too oaky from barrel aging for most recipes. When cooked, "oaky" became bitter, not woody.

TOO SWEET

Riesling This wine's fruity sweetness paired well with a few recipes but was out of place in other dishes.

TOO SHY

Pinot Grigio While this slightly acidic, mild wine won't ruin a recipe, it won't improve it much either, adding only a "generic wine-iness" that fades quickly into the background

Not Recommended

SALTY DOG

Cooking Wine

The salt used to preserve inexpensive cooking wine makes it unpotable.

NOT A TEAM PLAYER

Sherry

Complex sherry worked well with the robust flavors in chasseur, but its "earthy" notes dominated the simple beurre blanc and risotto.